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Ethos on Trial

posted: 7.10.13 by Donna Winchell

Ethos has been in the news recently. We don’t call it that, of course, but we are certainly considering ethos when we judge Paula Deen, whether we defend her or condemn her. How interesting that such leaders as Jessie Jackson and former President Carter have been called upon to make public statements about whether a cooking celebrity should be forgiven or whether she can be redeemed. Even the words “forgiven” and “redeemed” reinforce the fact that she is being judged on ethical grounds. Logos has had little to do with the debate over Deen’s words. Pathos enters in when people respond emotionally to what Deen said, and certainly entered into Deen’s tearful second apology, but our verdict in Deen’s case comes primarily from our response to whether we see her as a good or a bad person.

Probably most who are sitting in judgment of Deen haven’t read the testimony that is being used to condemn her. What made headlines was that she is said to have used the N-word. Those who are interested in knowing the context can read her actual words online. One line of argument, of course, is that the word is not acceptable in any context. Another is that it is used frequently in rap lyrics and in casual conversations among some blacks, so why is it so offensive coming from Deen? One thing that comes through clearly in the testimony is how much Deen–and by extension her language–is a product of the culture she grew up in.

Ethos may have an even more profound effect on the outcome of the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, and not only as a result of whether Zimmerman is judged to be a good or a bad person. The credibility of Rachel Jeantel, who had been called the prosecution’s star witness, was called into question because she is known to have lied about why she did not attend Martin’s wake and to have changed her story about the night of the killing. Her past false statements are certainly relevant to how credible a jury will find her to be, but a look at how Jeantel has been discussed in the social media and in the public media reveals how much Jeantel herself has been placed on trial. The New Yorker went so far as to title its story about her testimony “Rachel Jeantel on Trial,” and the article included this statement: “Her appearance, diction, size, and intelligence were an unspoken but all-encompassing part of the proceedings.” Salon’s headline read, “Dark-skinned and plus-sized: The Real Rachel Jeantel Story.” Her size is certainly irrelevant. Her color is also except to the extent that her race influenced whether or not she viewed the conflict between Martin and Zimmerman that she overhead on the phone as racial or not. She lost credibility as a judge of that, however, when she more than once said that Martin’s characterizing of Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” was not racial.

Deen’s racial comments and views have cost her a job and a host of endorsement deals. George Zimmerman’s future depends on how his actions are judged but apparently also on how his witnesses are.

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